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The seven fundamental rules of amazing donor communications

In creating hundreds, if not thousands, of donor communication pieces, I have found that there are seven fundamental rules for amazing donor communications:

Rule 1 - Look at donor communications as a system and a process
Donor communications aren't "one-off" items. Don't think in terms of "this newsletter" or "that e-mail". Think in terms of your entire donor communications system. In order to have an effective communications system, you need to have a donor communications plan in place that incorporates your overall development strategy.

Similarly, you should remember that donor communications is a process. Communicating with your donors takes time. One e-mail won't make or break your communications programme. Instead, think of the programme holistically... every time you communicate with your donors you are telling one small part of the big picture story of your non-profit.

Just as with any relationship, donor relationships strengthen over time. Realise this, and give your donor relationships the time they need to mature. As you communicate with your donors on a regular basis, the relationship between the prospect and your organisation will slowly strengthen.

Rule 2 - People like to feel like part of a team
Remember that people like to feel like part of a team. Everyone on Earth wants to feel like they are joined in a relationship with other people who are all marching towards a common goal.

Thus, one of the key strategies for your communications efforts should be to make people feel like part of your team. Talk to them as peers. Ask them for their suggestions. Keep them constantly in the loop. Make them feel like you're all one big team working towards a common vision (you are, aren't you?).

Rule 3 - Donors like to invest in causes bigger than themselves. Cast a big vision!
It is important to understand that people like to be caught up in a larger vision.

Most people, even the rich and famous, get "stuck" in their daily routines. They get up, go to work, eat meals, play with the kids, retire and do some travelling and grow old watching the grandkids play.

Because most people don't like the fact that they get stuck in a "standard" routine, they like to break free by getting caught up in bigger stories and visions. Epic movies, great novels, and a night at the symphony are all ways to escape the humdrum and get caught up in a larger story.

You might not realise it yet, but your nonprofit is another great way for people to escape the routine and get caught up in a larger story and vision for the future. What work are you doing? Are you curing cancer? Feeding the hungry? Educating future generations? People want to get caught up in your vision... so let them! Cast a big vision, and paint a big picture.

Your communications process has to be focused on engaging people in your vision and allowing them to escape the routine by working with you to meet your common challenges and accomplish your common mission.

Rule 4 - Write for your readers, not your high school English teacher
Great donor communications needn't be perfect, they just need to "work". And communications pieces that work are written in a conversational tone that is easily understood by the vast majority of people who are reading them.

This means no high-brow language! No acronyms that people don't understand. No sentences that start, "Our multi-disciplinary team-based approach to forensic interviewing... "

Donor communications studies have shown that the best nonprofit newsletters, e-mails and updates are written on about a sixth-grade level. Great donor communications feel conversational... they sound like someone is talking to you. Pieces like this are easier to read.

If people feel like your newsletter or annual report is difficult to read or understand, guess what? They'll stop reading it! It's OK to use sentence fragments or extra punctuation, and to start sentences with prepositions if doing these things makes your communications easier to read.

Of course, your item still needs to look like it was written by a professional, so typos are out. You want your donor communications to be conversational, but not sloppy.

Rule 5 - Appeal to your readers' emotions
Nonprofit communications should be emotional... after all, you are doing life-saving, world-changing work! The best of them appeal to readers' deepest feelings and desires, things like their faith, their world view and beliefs about humanity, their hope for a better world for their children, their sense of justice and fairness, etc. People want to get involved (and donate) when you touch their soul. Sound over the top? It's not... it's what works. The best newsletters, e-mails and annual reports appeal to emotion without feeling sappy or contrived.

Show the concrete difference your organisation is making in the world. Make them feel what you are saying.

Connect people with your mission and your results. Does this mean you shouldn't clearly explain the need or use facts, figures and statistics? No, not at all - use them to make your case.

What it does mean, though, is that your donor communications should lean more towards the emotional side and less towards the clinical side.

Rule 6 - Talk about YOU and WE, not I and ME
Your donor communications should be written from a first person perspective, meaning you talk about "I" and "we" instead of "the organisation," or "the charity". But - and this is super important for writing successful letters - mostly what you should be saying is "you," meaning "you, the donor". Your letters should focus on your work, yes, but really should focus on the donor you are writing to.

This means talking about "your past support," "your concern for the poor," "your assistance with this project," "the difference you can make".

"You" is one of the most important words in a nonprofit fundraiser's lexicon.

Rule 7 - Make your communications a two-way street
People like having conversations, but hate being "talked at". In order to be really effective with your donor communications, you need to view the process as a conversation, not a lecture. Donor communications are a two-way street.

This is easy to say, but harder to actually do. I have found that some of the most effective ways to make your donors feel like they are having a conversation with you through your communications are to send out surveys on a regular basis, take online polls, solicit feedback from your donors / readers, hold online "office hours" or "roundtable discussions" for your donors on your website, and include contact information, including a phone number, in all of your donor communication items.

With acknowledgement to Joe Garecht from The Fundraising Authority. Visit the website and subscribe at

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